Dr. Martin Luther King’s Challenge to the Democrats, as Biden Finally Speaks out on Voting Rights
On January 11, 2022 President Joe Biden made an impassioned speech in support of the Voting Rights Act and against the right-wing fascist take-over. It was a critical speech in the fight between the center-right Democrats and the arch rights fascist Republicans and deserves our support. But, once again we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday and fight to protect his revolutionary legacy from Democratic Party white washers, including their cover-up of their treachery against him when he was alive.
The goal is to protect Dr. King’s historical legacy and explain Dr. King’s independence from the Democratic Party, his lifelong fight with the Democratic Party, and to call on “social justice groups” who have become adjuncts the Democratic Party to have the decency to look history squarely in the face. You don’t have to agree with Dr. King’s independence from the Democratic Party, his strong Black Liberation politics, his profound internationalism, anti-imperialist, and pro-communism, but please do not take the name of the Revolutionary Dr. King in vain or use him to advance the neo-liberal, anti-Black Democratic agenda.
Once again we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday and fight to protect his revolutionary legacy from Democratic Party white washers, including their cover-up of their treachery against him when he was alive.
Joe Biden, trying to invoke every possible image to his side, says,
“Will you stand against election subversion? Yes or no? Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”
I know that many of us who were taught by Dr. King, who marched with him, CORE, SNCC, Malcolm X he Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and yes, the Black Panther Party would respond,
“Joe Biden. Do not use Dr. King to advance your objectives. You Democrats spent your lives belittling him, defaming him, surveilling him, character assassinating him, and contributing to his actual assassination. And, in case you think we forgot, Bull Connor was a Democrat, George Wallace as a Democrat, and Kennedy and Johnson conciliated with them. They saw Dr. King as an adversary and when he refused to advance their agenda, they turned J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI on Dr. King whom they came to see as an enemy.
Every year on Dr. King’s birthday, thanks to Jeffrey St. Clair and Counterpunch, we publish my historical analytical article on Dr. King’ revolutionary legacy— “All Hail the Revolutionary King.” And every year I write a new introduction to situate Dr. King’s historical role in the specific time, place, and conditions of today’s movement. Those of us who knew him and studied his work know that had he been alive, and he is for many of us, he would continue to be a strong force in challenging the two-party U.S. Empire—and yes, the Biden initiated wars against China and Russia.
A short history of Democratic Party Attacks on Dr. King and the Black Community
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a complex and contentious relationship with the Democratic Party as did all of us in the Civil Rights Movement.
In his letter 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail he called out white, Democratic party “moderates.
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice
Dr. King refused to capitulate to John Kennedy. He refused to acceded to Kennedy’s demands on who he could choose as his allies and advisers. In return, the Kennedy’s authorized J. Edgar Hoover to wiretap him and put him under systematic surveillance with the goal of discrediting and whitemailing him.
After a meeting with Civil Rights Leaders at the White House in 1963, President Kennedy took Dr. King into the Rose Garden for a private chat. King, assuming the president was going to offer an off the record set of concessions, was startled when Kennedy demanded he break his relationship with Stanley Levison, Levison had been close to the Communist Party but more than that, and partially because of that, he was a brilliant strategist, tactician, and confidante for King. He had initially been introduced to King by Bayard Rustin, a Quaker, in New York City in 1956. Though King had offered to pay Levison in exchange for his help, Levison refused on every occasion, as he believed “the liberation struggle is the most positive and rewarding area of work anyone could experience.”
The FBI used the pretext of Levison’s ties to the CPUSA to initiate wire taps in King’s offices and hotel rooms. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had long associated the civil rights movement with communism, and he strongly expected that Levison would use or manipulate King to stimulate political unrest within the United States. In 2012, Tim Weiner wrote in his history of the FBI that Hoover believed Levison had “indoctrinated King in Marxist thought and subversive strategies”, and that King was “part of Moscow’s grand design to subvert the United States of America.”
It took Robert Kennedy to give written approval to Hoover for wiretapping of King’s phones to look for evidence in any areas of King’s life they deemed worthy. The Bureau placed wiretaps on Levison’s and King’s home and office phones, and bugged King’s rooms in hotels as he traveled across the country. As King’s prominence grew J. Edgar Hoover, under the Democratic Kennedy and then Democratic Lyndon Johnson administrations, moved to defame, degrade, and assassinate M.L. King who they correctly identified as “the Black Messiah.”
But, let’s not demonize Hoover out of context. From 1960 to King’s death in 1968 J. Edgar Hoover worked for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, both Democrats. On April 7, 1968, the day of King’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson was still president, J. Edgar Hoover was still the head of the F.B.I., and by then Johnson was also working to isolate and discredit Dr. King.
The James Baldwin/Bobby Kennedy Meeting 1963—Kennedy is furious at the challenge from Civil Rights Militants
Bobby Kennedy, thinking he would co-opt the civil rights movement initiated a meeting with James Baldwin to “listen to the Negroes concerns.” Like in Invisible Man, he did not like what he heard or see the Black people in front of him.
James Baldwin brought a delegation of civil rights royalty. David Baldwin, James Baldwin’s brother, Harry Belafonte, singer and activist, Edwin Berry, director of the Chicago Urban League, Kenneth Clark, psychologist, June Shagaloff, Education Director of the NAACP, Lorraine Hansberry, playwright, Lena Horne, musician, Clarence Benjamin Jones, advisor to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jerome Smith, Freedom Rider associated with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) After Jerome Smith told Bobby Kennedy that Black people would not fight in Cuba or anywhere else for the racist States, and Lorraine Hansberry warned Kennedy he had to listen to the new militant Black Voices, Kennedy put them all under surveillance. (I would love to hear Clarence Jones tell this story in even great detail.)
President Biden is absolutely right to fight for a new Voting Rights Act. He is absolutely wrong to invoke Dr. Martin Luther King’s name to justify that support.
Dr. King speaks out against the war in Vietnam and Democrats from Lyndon Johnson to the local dog catcher turn against him with a vengeance.
On April 4, 1967, exactly one year to the day of his assassination on April 4, 1968, Dr. King gave his historic “Vietnam: A Time to End the Silence: speech at the Riverside Church in New York.
King’s majestic beginning in which he confronts, publicly, his own conscience, his own silence, his own sense of betrayal, the apathy of conforming thought inside his bosom, he makes it clear it is an “avocation of agony.” As you read his long philosophical introduction to one of the great orations of all time—with great admiration for his primary speechwriter, Vincent Harding, let me translate what all of us understood at the time.
First let’s read Dr. King in his own words.
I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.
The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on.
Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often avocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movements, and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.
Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns, this query has often loomed large and loud: “Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?” “Why are you joining the voices of dissent?” “Peace and civil rights don’t mix,” they say. “Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people?” they ask. And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live. In the light of such tragic misunderstanding, I deem it of signal importance to try to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church—the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate—leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.
The major audience for this speech was urging everyone tied to the Democratic Party to stand up to Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic liberals who were carrying out the genocidal war in Vietnam.
What is behind this painful introduction? Who exactly is telling him that “peace and civil rights don’t mix? It was president Lyndon Johnson who dropped his good old boy façade to tell King in no uncertain terms that if King came out against his war in Vietnam, Johnson would destroy him. And just as when Muhammad Ali spoke out against the war in Vietnam, and the NAACP and every liberal Democrat excoriated him, Dr. King was put through the most brutal retaliation for his courage. The Democrats worked to marginalized him. Democratic Party funders cut him off. The media treated him as a subversive (which he was in his own way) and took away their false mantle of him as a “moderate.”
The brutal attacks on Dr. King, led by the Democratic Party, are exposed in living color in Tavis Smiley’s important film, “Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year”
I also witnessed the Democratic terror campaign first-hand. In 1964 and 1965 I was a field secretary for the East Coast regional office of the Congress of Racial Equality and also worked closely with President James Farmer in the national office. At the July 1965 CORE National Convention, Ruth Turner of Cleveland CORE and Lincoln Lynch of Long Island CORE, almost 2 years before King’s speech, introduced a motion that CORE come out against the U.S. war in Vietnam and urge Black people not to fight. James Farmer, an avowed pacifist was terrified and told the delegates, in no uncertain terms, that CORE depended on the support of the Democratic Party for civil rights reforms and any effort to oppose the war would bring down massive repression from the Democrats. At least he was honest. The delegates still pushed on with their motion and Farmer had to exert extra-parliamentary maneuvers to kill the motion. But most importantly, I saw the absolute fear in Farmer’s visage and while strongly disagreeing, understood his deep concerns as to the cost to CORE as he knew it.
So, President Biden. Thank you for introducing the new Voting Rights Act, and thank you for taking on the fascist right, but please do not invoke Dr. King’s name to support your cause. The Democratic Party has his blood on its hand.
Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden worked to further destroy Dr. King’s Legacy
In 1972, after the massive white backlash against the candidacy of George McGovern, some of his supporters, such as Bill Clinton, concluded, sadly, correctly, that the White Settler State would not elect a decent civil rights/anti-war president. They initiated the Democratic Leadership Council to move the Democratic Party to the right, calling it the “center,” and to purge former Kennedy and McGovern forces from leadership in the party. They succeeded only too well. And way beyond George W. Bush’s “racist dog whistle Willie Horton Campaign in 1988, by 1992, Clinton and Gore ran against Black men and women—calling the former “super-predators” and the latter “welfare cheats.”
In 1994, they passed The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act commonly referred to as the 1994 Crime Bill, the Clinton Crime Bill, or the Biden Crime Law—the largest crime bill in the history of the United States with 100,000 new police officers, $9.7 billion in funding for prisons and $6.1 billion in funding for “prevention program” designed by the police forces. Senator Joe Biden of Delaware drafted the Senate version of the legislation in cooperation with the National Association of Police Organizations.
In 1996 Bill and Hillary Clinton championed the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Act that, under the guise of “Welfare Reform” and ended financial support for millions of low-income women and children. The rhetoric around both was racist and punitive. (The elaboration of these argument can be found in “How to stop the Clinton Assault” by Eric Mann and Lian Hurst Mann in Z Magazine, September 1997, and the Strategy Center’s political publication AhoraNow no. 3 (October 1997).
So, as we celebrate Dr. King’s revolutionary legacy, I leave you with the statements of then Senator now President Joe Biden on how to protect the civil rights of low-income Black communities speaking in support of the Crime Bill that he managed.
We have predators on our streets that society has in fact, in part because of its neglect, created…they are beyond the pale many of those people, beyond the pale. And it’s a sad commentary on society. We have no choice but to take them out of society….a cadre of young people, tens of thousands of them, born out of wedlock, without parents, without supervision, without any structure, without any conscience developing because they literally … because they literally have not been socialized, they literally have not had an opportunity….we should focus on them now….if we don’t, they will, or a portion of them, will become the predators 15 years from now.
“The consensus is we must take back the streets. It doesn’t matter whether or not the person that is accosting your son or daughter or my son or daughter, my wife, your husband, my mother, your parents, it doesn’t matter whether or not they were deprived as a youth. It doesn’t matter whether or not they had no background that enabled them to become socialized into the fabric of society. It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re the victims of society. The end result is they’re about to knock my mother on the head with a lead pipe, shoot my sister, beat up my wife, take on my sons.”
“I don’t care why someone is a malefactor in society. I don’t care why someone is antisocial. I don’t care why they’ve become a sociopath. We have an obligation to cordon them off from the rest of society.”
So, President Biden. I support your aggressive introduction of a new Voting Rights Bill. But please do not invoke the name of Dr. Martin Luther King to advance that cause. For you and the Democrats tortured him, surveilled him, slandered him, tried to drive him to suicide, encouraged others to kill him, and now have worked to whitewash his memory. Worse, you are major contributors to the mass incarceration, impoverishment, houselessness, and yes, disenfranchisement of the Black people you know call on to support your voting rights bill.
And for those social justice activists and organizers today who believe that the Democratic Party is the road to salvation, I urge you to at least read this history and expositions of the real Revolutionary King and ask yourself which side are you on?
All Hail the Revolutionary KingIn 2022 and Beyond
The annual King Day celebrations provide a great opportunity to defend Dr. King’s revolutionary legacy against The System’s efforts to white wash and degrade his frontal challenge to its crimes. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a leader of the Civil Rights and Black Liberation Movement, a fierce internationalist, anti-imperialist, and Pan Africanist, a Black militant, pro-communist socialist, and part of The Movement that was far to the left of and in opposition to the Democratic Party. And for some militant young people who have imbibed the slanders of the system, using phrases like, “This is not your grandfather’s civil rights movement” I urge you to study Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. because it will take a miracle to reconstruct The Movement that he and millions of us built. But that is the challenge today!
In that there is no such thing as History but only the struggle over historical interpretation, I, along with many others, want to reinforce the historical view of Dr. King as a great leader in the Black Revolutionary Tradition whose work should help shape our organizing today.
- Dr. King rejected the myths of U.S. society. He rejected its Mad Men packaging itself as “the leader of the free world” to tell it like it is; that the United States is “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”
- Dr. King saw “the Negro revolution” as part of a Third World and world revolution. “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values…For years, I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of the South, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a radical reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.”
Dr. Clayborne Carson, Director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, in his King Papers, related the following story.
Before leaving Ghana, King welcomed a visit from English clergyman and anti-colonial activist Michael Scott, during which the two men compared the freedom struggles in Africa and the United States. King reportedly expressed admiration for the bus boycott then taking place in Johannesburg, South Africa, and remarked that there was “no basic difference between colonialism and racial segregation … at bottom both segregation in American and colonialism in Africa were based on the same thing — white supremacy and contempt for life.”
Dr King supported the Black Power movement and saw himself as a tendency within it. He marched with Stokely Carmichael and Willie Ricks on the March against Fear in Mississippi June 1966. While initially taken aback by their cries of Black Power, he soon elaborated his own views as part of the Black Power continuum. “Now there is a kind of concrete, real Black power that I believe in … certainly if Black power means the amassing of political and economic power in order to gain our just and legitimate goals, then we all believe in that.”
Dr. King sided with the people of Vietnam including the Vietnamese Communists against the U.S. invasion. In his Beyond Vietnam speech, written by and with his close comrade, Vincent Harding, his anti-colonial support for the legitimacy of the Vietnamese Communist cause was clear.
The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1945 after a combined French and Japanese occupation, and before the Communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its reconquest of her former colony.
Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not “ready” for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long. With that tragic decision we rejected a revolutionary government seeking self-determination, and a government that had been established not by China (for whom the Vietnamese have no great love) but by clearly indigenous forces that included some Communists. For the peasants this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important needs in their lives. For nine years following 1945 we denied the people of Vietnam the right of independence. For nine years we vigorously supported the French in their abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam.
Dr. King was deeply appreciative of the Black communist traditions of W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson. He was well aware of the irony and significance that Dr. DuBois died, in Ghana, an exile from the United States and a Communist, on the very day of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963.
Dr. King observed,
We cannot talk of Dr. DuBois without recognizing that he was a radical all of his life. Some people would like to mute the fact that he was a genius who became a Communist in his later years. It is worth noting that Abraham Lincoln warmly recognized the support of Karl Marx during the Civil War and corresponded with him freely. In contemporary life the English-speaking world has no difficulty with the fact that Sean O’Casey was a literary giant of the twentieth century and a Communist or that Pablo Neruda is generally considered the greatest living poet though he also served in the Chilean Senate as a Communist…Our irrational, obsessive, anti-communism has led us into too many quagmires to be retained as if it was a model of scientific thinking
King did not merely mention the great contributions of Communists from Du Bois, Casey, Neruda and Ho Chi Minh; he situated himself in that tradition not as a member but clearly as a friend and admirer.
Dr. King’s non-violence was aggressive and militant reflected in non-violent direct action.
Of course, Dr. King had his own unique views inside the civil rights movement and Black united front. His views on non-violence were real and deeply held. He also saw non-violence as a tactic to prevent a massive violent backlash from racist whites. King tried to position his demonstrations in ways to get the largest amount of white liberal and international support and to pressure the national Democratic Party that was tied at the hip to the racist Dixiecrats. His belief in non-violence deeply held, but was also tied to the theory and practice of militant, aggressive, Non-Violent Direct Action.
When I worked with CORE and allied with SNCC in 1964-1965 they were known as the Black militants, and yet both organizations saw themselves, at the time, as non-violent. But that did not prevent and in fact encouraged Black people to march into the registrar of elections in Southern cities and refuse to leave, Black students to occupy lunch counters and refusing to leave, Black and white people marching at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma confronting an army of armed police and white racists, or Black people in the north marching into elected officials’ offices and occupying them, yelling, chanting, singing, and confronting. Everyone we challenged in “the white power structure” saw militant, non-violent direct action as a big threat and retaliated accordingly. No one at the time praised Dr. King for his “moderation.” They saw angry Black people and saw Dr. King as a threat, which he certainly was. and saw his non-violence and “urgency of now” as a political force to be crushed not co-opted.
Dr. King fought the Democratic Party of Lyndon Johnson and the Black Democratic Establishment. When Dr. King brought his movement to Chicago the Democratic Party Black establishment refused to support him, sided with the racist Mayor Daley, and told him to “go down south where you belong.” Many of them refused to join his mass and militant marches for open housing and an end to police brutality. In response, Dr. King called out the Black political establishment.
“The majority of Black political leaders do not ascend to prominence on the shoulders of mass support … most are still selected by white leadership, elevated to position, supplied with resources and inevitably subjected to white control. The mass of [Blacks] nurtures a healthy suspicion toward this manufactured leader.”
On this day honoring his birthday, let’s take a deeper look at his political thought and revolutionary legacy.
Dr. King understood that the Civil Rights and Black Liberation Movement was from the outset a battle against the system itself.
King understood the intersection of radical reforms and social revolution and was always working to understand the time, place, conditions and balance of forces that would shape his rhetoric and tactical plan. King was one of the greatest and most effective reformers of all and yet, in confronting the system’s intransigence his own revolutionary outlook kept evolving. King’s prominence began in 1955, in his leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the same year as the murder of Emmett Till and the Bandung Conference of Non-Aligned Nations–to begin what turned out to be “the Two Decades of the Sixties” that did not end until the defeat of the United States in Vietnam in 1975. Despite the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn school segregation in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, Montgomery in 1955, the great Greensboro sit-ins of 1960, the exciting work of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and Congress of Racial Equality Freedom Rides of 1961 the conditions of Black people in the United States remained at criminal levels. By 1963 white Democratic Party terror in the South and Democratic Party racism and brutality in the ghettos of the North had generated a great deal of militancy, organizing, and consciousness but little change in the system. At the great March on Washington in August 1963 King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SNCC, CORE, NAACP, Urban League, and A. Phillip Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters took place amid air of hope–but also great impatience and militancy. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (a phrase that was not in its initial draft) was in fact a revolutionary indictment of U.S. society.
“One hundred years later [after the formal abolition of slavery] the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. So, we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition
“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s Capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.
“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So, we have come to cash this check–a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”
King is imploring, cajoling, but what his words make clear, threatening U.S. society and trying to mobilize Black rebellion. When he says “crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of segregation” he is making it clear that slavery is in fact still in place. He describes the United States as a society that offers the Negro bad checks and broken promises. When he says, “We refuse to believe the bank of justice is bankrupt” this is code for “we know you are morally bankrupt but Black people are here to demand, as the Staple Singers demanded, ‘When will we be paid for the work we’ve done’.”
King’s formulation of “the fierce urgency of now and the tranquilizing drug of gradualism” was a frontal assault on the President Kennedy and the Democrats cry for “patience” in face of injustice. King countered with the spirit of Freedom Now–the cry of Black militants in South Africa, South Carolina and the South Bronx–and supported by a growing number of white supporters of the civil rights movement. In fact, “Now” was one of the revolutionary slogans of its time. And President Kennedy and the whole world were listening.
One of King’s revolutionary observations– that is still painfully relevant today–was, “the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.”
In 1964 I was recruited by organizers of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to join “the civil rights revolution.” By the time I got to CORE in Harlem and the Northeast my mentors were staying up all night debating what exactly that revolution would look like. While the struggle focused on democratic rights and full equality many SNCC and CORE leaders were talking about some form of Black nation, Black Power, Black militancy, Black separatism–not as a way of “getting away” from the system but as part of a plan to challenge it–and for some, overthrow it. Clearly influenced by Malcolm X but also the African liberation movements people were talking about a challenge to U.S. capitalism and at least talking about some type of pro-socialist system. It was not all that clear or delineated but the concepts of full equality, full democratic rights, Black rights, self-determination, radical reform and revolution were far more interrelated than counterposed–and all of them involved Black people in the leadership of a multi-racial movement–either through integration or separation. In that context, I am arguing that Dr. King was a Black revolutionary nationalist, perhaps of a more moderate nature, but he was a student of world history and was impacted by the revolutionary ideas of the times. For Dr. King, as early as 1963, to tell the president of the United States that Black people in the U.S. are “exiles in their own land” was clearly a call for some form of both full equality and Black self-determination and far away from the “more perfect union” myth that the system was selling–with few buyers.
King was a victim of capitalist state violence, surveillance, psychological, character, and actual assassination.
The story of J. Edgar Hoover’s campaign to destroy ML King and force him into a nervous breakdown and suicide is not tangential but central to King’s revolutionary history–and the surveillance and police state we live under today. And yet, another element of the revolutionary history of Dr. King that is being whitewashed is his actual assassination was by the system itself. Part of this cover-up is to destroy the memory of the work of Coretta Scott King in exposing the actual assassination of Dr. King.
In his “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech the very night before he was murdered Dr. King was very aware of what he felt was his possible and imminent assassination.
“Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So, I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. “
And while his words are brave, every time I hear that talk I hear a mortal man not fully at peace, nor should he have been, with his mortality–but trying to comfort and reassure Black people that “we as a people” will find liberation–rather than asking them to protect him–which he knew they could not.
On December 8, 1999, (21 years after his death) after the King family and allies presented 70 witnesses in a civil trial, twelve jurors in Memphis, Tennessee reached a unanimous verdict after about an hour of deliberations that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated as a result of a conspiracy.
In a press statement held the following day in Atlanta, Mrs. Coretta Scott King welcomed the verdict.
“There is abundant evidence of a major high-level conspiracy in the assassination of my husband, Martin Luther King, Jr. And the civil court’s unanimous verdict has validated our belief. I wholeheartedly applaud the verdict of the jury and I feel that justice has been well served in their deliberations. This verdict is not only a great victory for my family, but also a great victory for America. It is a great victory for truth itself. It is important to know that this was a SWIFT verdict, delivered after about an hour of jury deliberation. The jury was clearly convinced by the extensive evidence that was presented during the trial that, in addition to Mr. Jowers, the conspiracy of the Mafia, local, state and federal government agencies, were deeply involved in the assassination of my husband. The jury also affirmed overwhelming evidence that identified someone else, not James Earl Ray, as the shooter, and that Mr. Ray was set up to take the blame. I want to make it clear that my family has no interest in retribution. Instead, our sole concern has been that the full truth of the assassination has been revealed and adjudicated in a court of law… My husband once said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” To-day, almost 32 years after my husband and the father of my four children was assassinated, I feel that the jury’s verdict clearly affirms this principle. With this faith, we can begin the 21st century and the new millennium with a new spirit of hope and healing.”
Sadly, the police/surveillance/counter-insurgency state is stronger than ever–but at least there is growing public challenge to its hegemony. Understanding the revolutionary story of Dr. King and the system’s decision to bring him down is essential if we want to understand and make history in the present.
King was from the outset a Black militant and revolutionary who advocated non-violent direct action but saw “the Negro revolution” as the overriding objective.
While Dr. King strongly argued for non-violence as both a tactical and ethical perspective he also supported the right of Black people to armed self-defense and allied with the advocates of armed self-defense and even armed struggle in the Black movement.
At a time of the most rampant and systematic police violence the system’s armed requirement that Black people are “non-violent” is intellectually and morally lethal. It flies in the face of the long-standing tradition of armed self-defense in the Black community and the urgency to defend that tradition today. Worse, to use Dr. King against that basic right is the height of cynicism and historical distortion.
Clay Carson’s In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s, helps shed light on this complex relationship. While many young organizers were critical of Dr. King SNCC’s Stokely Carmichael explained best their appreciation of his profound impact on the Black masses.
“People loved King. I’ve seen people in the South climb over each other just to say, “I touched him, I touched him.” I’m even talking about the young…These were the people we were working with and I had to follow in his footsteps when I went in there. The people didn’t know what was SNCC. They just said, “You one of Dr. King’s men?” “Yes, Ma’am I am.”
Carson explains the pivotal role of “militant and self-reliant local black residents who owned weapons and were willing to defend themselves when attacked. Black rallies in the county were often protected by armed guards sometimes affiliated with the Louisiana-based Deacons for Defense and Justice”
Many SNCC organizers, disagreeing with King’s focus on non-violence, explained, “We are not King or SCLC. They don’t do the work the kind of work that we do nor do they live in the areas we live in. They don’t drive the highways at night” …Carmichael recalled that the discussion ended when he asked those carrying weapons to place them on the table. Nearly all the black organizers working in the Deep South were armed.
But again, the system wants to act like the battle between King on the one hand, and SNCC and the Black militants on the other, was a morality play or an ideological war. It wasn’t. It was an intellectual, strategic, and yes, ethical struggle among equals and King was both open minded and introspective about the limits of his non-violent advocacy–and as such, people had respect for his own principles and rationale.
In 1965, James Farmer, the director of CORE, a truly dedicated pacifist, told a group of us at a mass meeting, “I am completely non-violent but I want to thank our brothers from the Deacons for Defense (who were both standing guard and yes, getting a standing ovation from the organizers) whose arms allow me to be non-violent.” My read of history is King felt similarly.
And even more importantly, King well understood that his “non-violence” could be used by the system as a justification for state violence and of course the system’s need to destroy the Black united front. In his speech, “Beyond Vietnam” on April 4, 1967 King addressed frontally his most principled conversations with the angry youth of the urban ghettos. He stated,
“As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problem. I have tried to offer my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through non-violent action. But they asked, and rightfully so, “What about Vietnam? ” Their questions hit home and I knew I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”
Note that King does not try to raise a moral critique of those who would use Molotov cocktails and rifles in response to the economic and armed violence of the state. And by making clear he considered its advocates “the oppressed” he supported the morality, if not the tactics, of their cause. Instead, he simply argued that he did not feel it would “solve their problem” and even then, qualified his own advocacy of non-violence to make the case that “social change comes most meaningfully” but not exclusively from non-violence. He admitted it was a legitimate debate.
Martin Luther King Jr., SNCC, CORE, and Malcolm X represented at the time the “left” of the Black united front and worked to find strategic and tactical unity with the NAACP and Urban League–which made the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Bill, and the Voting Rights Bill possible. While King had many contradictions with the young Black militants he understood them and they him as strategic allies against a system of white supremacist capitalism.
SNCC, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and M.L. King were on the frontlines of the movement against the U.S. war of aggression in Vietnam.
While SNCC and Malcolm were among the first to speak out frontally against the war as early as 1965, by April 1967 both King and Muhammad Ali took enormous risks to frontally challenge the war on moral grounds and to argue that Black people in particular had no interest in supporting the war.
In his monumental Beyond Vietnam speech. Dr. King argued in support of Vietnamese self-determination and rejected the view that the U.S. had any legitimate interests in Vietnam.
Reading primary documents is essential for the revolutionary historian/strategist/tactician and organizer. In reading and re-reading Beyond Vietnam I still hang on its every word.
- King called out U.S. war crimes against the Vietnamese people making the analogy that the United States feared the most–comparisons with Nazi Germany. He asked, what do the Vietnamese people “think when we test our latest weapons on them just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe.”
- King praised the integrity and legitimacy of the National Liberation Front of Vietnam including the communists who he argued were the legitimate political leaders of the Vietnamese people’s struggle.
“They were led by Ho Chi Minh” and were creating “a revolutionary government seeking self-determination.” He describes Ho as saved only by “his sense of humor and irony… when he hears the most powerful nation in the world speaking of aggression as it drops thousands bombs on a nation eight thousand miles from its shores.” (Communists with a sense of humor and irony–perhaps the most revolutionary insight of all.)
- King focused on demand development. In the end movements are unified by ideas, people, organizations and demands. He called on the U.S. government
- End all bombing in North and South Vietnam
- Declare a unilateral cease fire
* Curtail the U.S. build up in Thailand and Laos
- Recognize the role of The National Liberation Front in any future Vietnam government
- Remove all foreign–that is, U.S. troops from Vietnam
- Make reparations for the damage
This was tantamount to calling for immediate U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. It recognized the victory of the National Liberation Front and argued for what would later become a critical component of Black people’s demands against the U.S. government — “reparations.”
The story of the system’s attacks on Dr. King once he spoke out against the war in Vietnam and his courage in the face of this assault is another chapter of Dr. King’s revolutionary contribution to U.S. and world history. One important version of that story is Tavis Smiley’s documentary, Death of a King: Dr. Martin Luther King’s Final Year.
Dr. King brought a powerful and frontal indictment of the system of white supremacist, racist, capitalism. He appreciated the ideas of others and worked to build a Black and multi-racial united front against what he called “racism, poverty, and militarism.” He was willing to confront “the cowardice” inside his own bosom and modeled how all of us have to put our bodies, souls and lives on the line. He rejected gradualism and demanded “Freedom Now.” He advocated non-violence but defended the right of those who disagreed with him to armed self-defense. He rejected U.S. chauvinism, called for a militant internationalism, and challenged the U.S. Empire at home and abroad. He was independent of and yes, willing to challenge and confront the Democratic Party. He was and is a great contributor to the endless struggle for human and planetary liberation.
It is time to celebrate the Revolutionary King on the anniversary of his birthday. We thank Stevie Wonder, who spoke for all of us, when he wrote,
I just never understood
How a man who died for good
Could not have a day that would
Be set aside for his recognition Because it should never be
Just because some cannot see
The dream as clear as he
that they should make it become an illusion
And we all know everything
That he stood for time will bring
For in peace our hearts will sing
Thanks to Martin Luther King
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday. Happy birthday to you